Quite a bit of confusion stems, I’m beginning to think, from the fact that when debating games it is easy to be unclear about one’s level of analysis. Three levels tend to be intermingled:
A) The Core Game
This is the more or less hypothetical ideal game defined by what Salen & Zimmerman call the operational rules. This is the level on which chess, Pong, Gun-Fight etc. are zero-sum games.
B) The Game System
This is the game in its broadest sense including the game’s matching system, the particularities of its communication features (if any), whether it is generally played against physically distant opponents etc.
C) The Concrete Game
This is any concrete instance of the game played by actual players who may have all sorts of utility functions. No matter what type of conflict is specified by the core game, players of a concrete game may feel that they “win” or “lose” by entirely different standards.
There is no magic circle, only different levels of analysis. But my point is that one must specify one’s perspective. Claiming, for instance, that playing zero-sum games is bound to make players unable to cooperate (a hypothesis often aired) entails a disregard – or failure to acknowledge – of the fact that actually playing the game may be anything but a zero-sum experience.